What does it say about us as a nation that universally critically acclaimed programs like Freaks & Geeks or Firefly only last a season (Arrested Development slid by on two and a half seasons) but we’re on the umpteenth season of reality schlock like Dancing with the Stars or American Idol and that artifact which will serve as the calling card of the downfall of Western civilization, Jersey Shore, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. I no longer watch new TV shows once they’ve started airing until I know for sure they’ve gotten a second season because I can’t bear the thought of investing a whole season (or two) worth of emotion into a program just to have the carpet pulled out from under my feet after a massive season-ending cliffhanger that still tortures me from Invasion or Carnivale. Occasionally the problem is the network which airs episodes out of order, shuffles the program around a million different nights and time slots, and/or never gives the show enough time to find the audience it deserves. Fox is notorious about this program, and if you were ever associated with Mutant Enemy Productions (Joss Whedon’s production company), then good luck having a series last more than one season (poor Tim Minear).

 

As much fun (and responsibility shifting) as it is to blame the dearth of quality programming on network television (cause cable is mostly doing fine), at the end of the day, the fault lies with audiences. I’ve already stated how I (an avid TV fan who craves intelligent network shows) refuse to give new shows a chance for fear of being burned again. Had someone canceled Lost before it was over, I would probably have never watched television again, in any format. Networks realize that the cheap and easy ratings inherent in reality TV and countless crime procedurals and staid three-camera sitcoms make high concept and original programming too much of a risk for their ad-based business models. Why take a chance on a show that may be too intelligent and involved for your viewers when you can get some aging stand-up comedian to star in a half-hour comedy and you’ve already got a built-in fan base. Why spend the exorbitant amount of money it costs to shoot on location in Hawaii and craft special effects when you can make a reality program that just needs a sound stage? And this is our fault as audiences. We’re the ones (though not me) watching the reality TV and Law & Order: Hoboken (you know it’s coming). It’s this predilection for easy to digest material that means programs like Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer only hit the networks around once a decade. Studio 60 was a victim of being a program that would have fit in more on the literate and ambitious cable networks (who have seen an absolute explosion in great TV the last 5 years) rather than NBC and it is now just another statistic in the pages of what could have been? What makes this so sad is that these last five episodes of the show were the best the series has ever been (with the possible exception of the pilot) and Aaron Sorkin was hitting his creative stride. If he ever comes back to TV, I hope he chooses a network that has faith in his writing.

 

The last two episodes of the series draw to a close the story arc which had been building for the last three episodes (which have all taken place over one stress-filled and intense evening). As Tom awaits news concerning the fate of his brother being held hostage in Afghanistan, Danny also has to deal with tragic uncertainty as Jordan battles one complication after another in the aftermath of her delivery of her daughter two weeks early. To make matters worse, Simon’s epic explosion on the press is a brewing media firestorm that is forcing Jack to relive the same circumstances that led to the resignations of Matt and Danny five years ago after they aired a controversial sketch in the wake of 9/11. Tom is faced with the moral dilemma of hiring a private mercenary group to ensure the return of his brother which would be against the express directives of the U.S. military and our position of not negotiating with terrorists while Danny is forced to recognize that if Jordan dies, his engagement will not be enough to get him custody of his newborn daughter (which is not his biologically) unless he can convince Jordan to name him the legal guardian (while she’s in an anesthetized stupor). All of these worries are laid to rest when the U.S. army successfully rescues Tom’s brother (as well as the other two airmen) and Jordan recovers from her health problems. We discover that she already had adoption papers prepared for Danny to sign even before she knew he was going to ask her to marry him. To top it all off, Matt and Harriett finally realize they’re in love with each other and get back together and all is well on the set of Studio 60.

 

Before I get into why exactly it was these discs worked for me (so much credit goes to Stephen Weber who should be a much bigger star than he is), I want to talk about the sheer number of unresolved storylines this show left dangling at series end. I’m not going to penalize the program for not ending them because Aaron Sorkin was quickly forced to give this show satisfying emotional closure and this plots (while interesting) were not essential to that cause. So, we have the Beijing merger and whether or not Wilson White would lose his job. We don’t know how things ultimately down with the FCC. Matt and Harriett got back together at series end, but that felt like a last ditch and rushed thing that ignored all of the development and plotting devoted to giving Matt a secondary love interest in Kari Matchett. We don’t know how the show is going to handle its rating problems and how that would affect Danny and Jordan’s relationship. We don’t know how Jordan is going to deal with the encroaching pressure from her arch-rival that’s in charge of reality programming and is after Jordan’s job. We didn’t see Darius ever again after he and Simon finally went toe-to-toe about being a “black” writer. We never saw the aftermath of Matt’s decision to finally give up his pill addiction which would have made for good dramatic fodder. The sexual harassment lawsuit that introduced Kari Matchett in the first place was never solved. I’m sure there were others. How frustrating would it be as a writer to place all of these plot threads in place and then never have the opportunity to see them to fruition?

 

Once again, since the cast likely knew the show was done for, everyone was in top form. Jack Rudolph is maybe the most interesting and complicated character in the cast, as someone with morals and convictions that is forced to operate in the real world and to finally see all of the weight of the inherent contradiction and compromise of his job bear down on him as it did in these last two episodes was really compelling drama. Stephen Weber handled all of it with such devotion to character and intensity that he should have received some attention from the award boards just for either of these last two episodes. He portrayed a man on the verge of a moral breakdown and you could really buy him as a man being torn apart by countless motivations and needs. Nathan Corrdry was still great as Tom Jeter and yet again, the series made me cry thanks to his realistic performance when he finally learned that his brother had been rescued. The scene where Bradley Whitford goes to the hospital chapel was brilliantly written (and thankfully didn’t end with the religious capitulation that I thought was coming and would have pissed me off severely) and Bradley Whitford nailed every second of stress and anxiety over stress for his fiancee and newly born daughter.

 

I’ll end this because if I spend too much time thinking about how great this show was and how much potential it had to tell a continuing story of the liberal politics and the fight for our country’s soul at the very core of our entertainment industry, then I’m liable to end up depressed for the state of our country’s soul. Needless to say, for every fan of intellectual and literate television, you are doing yourself a serious disservice by not checking this program out. Unlike most programs that are canceled in their prime, this one actually ends with some emotionally satisfying closure (despite the litany of unresolved stories), and you won’t spend the rest of your life wondering what happened when Lindsay got on that bus at the end of Freaks and Geeks (that question will haunt me forever). Thankfully, cable television (premium and basic) is delivering a TV renaissance that has never been seen before in the history of the medium. Aspiring TV writers no longer have to fear the precedent laid down by this and countless other TV programs which is that you can write something absolutely brilliant and because of that fact, no one will watch it. Aaron Sorkin, your immense talents are sorely missed and we pray that one day, you’ll grace us with your gifts again.

Final Score: A

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